The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot
By: Israel Zangwill
About the Author: Israel Zangwill (1864–1926) was an Anglo-Jewish writer and political activist, born in London. He began his career as a teacher in the Jewish Free School in London's East End, then became a writer and journalist. His most famous works include the novel Children of the Ghetto, published in 1892, and The Melting Pot, which achieved great success in the United States. He founded the Jewish Territorialist Organization, with the aim of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.
The Melting Pot is a play by Israel Zangwill that opened in Washington in 1908, at the height of European immigration to the United States. It has been estimated that between 1890 and 1920 some eighteen million immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, and other countries entered and settled in the United States.
Zangwill's play was closely based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and was set in New York City, the home of many new U.S. immigrants. It told the story of David, a recent Jewish immigrant from Russia, who fell in love with a Christian Greek-Orthodox Russian girl and was able to overcome racial prejudice between their respective communities in America. In this excerpt, David reflects emotionally on how immigrants from diverse races and nationalities were merging into one American race and describes America metaphorically as a "melting pot." The concept of the melting pot as applied to American society is believed to have originated in the works of the writer Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur (1735–1813), but Zangwill's play first brought the concept into popular use.
The "Melting Pot" theory, later known as "cultural assimilation," assumed that immigrants would lose their own separate cultural and religious identities, take on the ways and characteristics of the dominant host society, and weaken their links with their own native cultures.
Even at the time that Zangwill's play opened in Washington, many opposed the idea that America was a melting pot into which immigrants from different races and cultures could seamlessly assimilate, or that they would want to lose their own ethnic and cultural identities and become American. Some of the established Americans at the time were also uncomfortable with the idea of welcoming and integrating many new groups of immigrants into American society.
Indeed, there was considerable prejudice and discrimination in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries towards various nonwhite immigrants and ethnic minorities such as the Chinese and African Americans, but also towards European immigrants including the Jews and the Irish. In the case of most European immigrants, however, a high degree of assimilation into existing American society did occur, and the society in turn was undoubtedly influenced by the distinctive cultural features of these groups. This indicates that there may have been some merit in the idea of a cultural melting pot, but that at best the mixing was limited to groups that were already racially or culturally similar.
Some decades later, in the 1960s, a publication by Nathan Glazer and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled Beyond the Melting Pot argued that even white immigrant groups retained their own ethnic identities and continued to be largely segregated within their own communities, while sharing a national 'American' culture. Other authors have argued that America never really had a history of welcoming immigrants in the way that the melting pot concept suggests, pointing out that immigration has always been tightly controlled, especially in relation to certain races and nationalities.
DAVID [Opens it eagerly, then smiles broadly with pleasure.] Oh, Miss Revendal! Isn't that great! To play again at your Settlement. I am getting famous.
VERA But we can't offer you a fee.
MENDEL [Quickly sotto voce to VERA] Thank you!
DAVID A fee! I'd pay a fee to see all those happy immigrants you gather together—Dutchmen and Greeks, Poles and Norwegians, Welsh and Armenians. If you only had Jews, it would be as good as going to Ellis Island.
VERA [Smiling] Were a strange taste! Who on earth wants to go to Ellis Island?
DAVID Oh, I love going to Ellis Island to watch the ships coming in from Europe, and to think that all those weary, sea-tossed wanderers are feeling what I felt when America first stretched out her great mother-hand to me!
VERA [Softly] Were you very happy?
DAVID It was heaven. You must remember that all my life I had heard of America—everybody in our town had friends there or was going there or got money orders from there. The earliest game I played at was selling off my toy furniture and setting up in America. All my life America was waiting, beckoning, shining—the place where God would wipe away tears from off all faces. [He ends in a half-sob.]
MENDEL [Rises, as in terror] Now, now, David, don't get excited. [Approaches him.]
DAVID To think that the same great torch of liberty which threw its light across all the broad seas and lands into my little garret in Russia, is shining also for all those other weeping millions of Europe, shining wherever men hunger and are oppressed—
MENDEL [Soothingly] Yes, yes, David. [Laying hand on his shoulder] Now sit down and—
DAVID [Unheeding] Shining over the starving villages of Italy and Ireland, over the swarming stony cities of Poland and Galicia, over the ruined farms of Roumania, over the shambles of Russia—
MENDEL [Pleadingly] David!
DAVID Oh, Miss Revendal, when I look at our Statue of Liberty, I just seem to hear the voice of America crying: "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest—rest―" [He is now almost sobbing.]
MENDEL Don't talk any more—you know it is bad for you.
DAVID But Miss Revendal asked—and I want to explain to her what America means to me.
MENDEL You can explain it in your American symphony.
VERA [Eagerly—to DAVIDJ] You compose?
DAVID [Embarrassed] Oh, uncle, why did you talk of—? Uncle always—my music is so thin and tinkling. When I am writing my American symphony, it seems like thunder crashing though a forest full of bird songs. But next day—oh, next day! [He laughs dolefully and turns away]
VERA So your music finds inspiration in America?
DAVID Yes—in the seething of the Crucible.
VERA The Crucible? I don't understand!
DAVID Not understand! You, the Spirit of the Settlement! [He rises and crosses to her and leans over the table, facing her.] Not understand that America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand [Graphically illustrating it on the table] in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won't be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to—these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
MENDEL I should have thought the American was made already―eighty millions of him.
DAVID Eighty millions! [He smiles toward VERA in good-humoured derision.] Eighty millions! Over a continent! Why, that cockleshell of a Britain has forty millions! No, uncle, the real American has not yet arrived. He is only in the Crucible, I tell you—he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman.
Recent waves of immigration to the United States have been mainly from the countries of Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East—countries that are racially, linguistically, and culturally very different to the United States. These immigrants are therefore less likely to become part of the American melting pot in the same way as the earlier waves of immigrants from Europe. Moreover, the policy emphasis in the United States has shifted from encouraging the full assimilation of immigrant groups to promoting a degree of multi-culturalism, for example, by introducing bilingual and bicultural educational programs in schools.
It has been predicted by demographers that the non-white percentage of the population will increase dramatically over the next few decades as a result of family reunification policies and natural increase, and that by 2050 around twenty-five percent of the American population will be Hispanic, twelve percent black and three percent Asian. In certain states, including California, Nevada, Texas, and New Jersey, non-white people are soon expected to be in the majority. Already, there is considerable ethnic segregation both geographically and economically, with many new immigrants concentrated in low-skilled or unskilled work and living in disadvantaged areas. It seems likely that the trend will be for increased multi-culturalism rather than assimilation, but the nature of the segregation that is occurring presents major social and economic challenges for the United States. At the same time, it can be argued that different ethnic groups are losing aspects of their cultural identities and being "Americanized" through the very strong influence of the media, especially television, which transcends ethnic and racial boundaries.
Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel P. Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot, Second Edition: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1970.
Sollors Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Burkhead, Paul. "Stirring the Pot: Immigrant and Refugee Challenges to the United States and the World." Journal of International Affairs 47 (1994).
Szuberla, Guy. "ZangwilPs 'the Melting Pot'Plays Chicago." MELUS. 20 (3) (1995): 3-20.
Wortham, Anne. "The Melting Pot—Part I: Are We There Yet?" World and I 16 (9) (September 1, 2001).
Washingtonpost.com. "The Myth of the Melting Pot." February 22, 1998 〈http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/melt0222.htm〉 (accessed July 14, 2006).